“The Cage”: Seeds of Star Treks to Come!
When I was a young person, I would watch Star Trek: The Next Generation every day at 5pm after school. I loved the characters and fantastical planets. Like any good science fiction, it made me think about different ways of being, different social configurations; science fiction made me realize that a lot of accepted conventions are merely that, and not natural. I would change the channel if The Original Series was on, though, because I didn’t like the grainy video quality and poor special effects compared to TNG. As an adult I revisited TNG and then moved on to DS9 and Voyager and my Star Trek love grew deeper as I recognized the complexities of this universe. I recently decided to set aside my childhood aversion to bad special effects and my adult aversion to sexism and start watching TOS—to see where my beloved Star Trek began! In the unaired pilot, I was surprised to see some ideas that continue throughout the franchise.
“The Cage,” has Jeffrey Hunter playing Captain Christopher Pike rather than William Shatner as Captain Kirk. Pike has piercing blue eyes and looks like he stepped out of a Brylcreem ad. The props and design are super fun and stylish, the acting earnest. When the warp drive is engaged, the theme music comes on and flowing stars are superimposed on the crew looking seriously into the viewscreen. I was immediately seduced by the charm of it all.
The doctor here is not the Bones we know and love, but rather Dr. Philip Boyce. Pike expresses some ennui with his starship responsibilities and the doctor gives him a drink, as “sometimes a man’ll tell his bartender things he’ll never tell his doctor.” This Enterprise is run a bit like Sterling Cooper—nothing like a stiff drink to cure what ails you. Pike is tired of being responsible for who lives and who dies, to the point of considering resigning. He imagines moving to a nice little town with parkland, riding horses to a picnic lunch, or starting his own business, perhaps becoming an Orion trader. The doctor responds, incredulous, “dealing in green animal women? Slaves?” The point is, for Pike, Starfleet isn’t the only life available. (Remember this—it’s important later!).
Another classically 1960s element is, of course, patronizing male astonishment at women, a stylish kind of misogyny. Referring to a young female yeoman, Pike says, “I can’t get used to having a woman on the bridge.” He then turns to his first officer, Number One, played by the gorgeous Majel Barrett: “No offence, Lieutenant. You're different, of course.” Nice to see that even on the Enterprise women are grouped into the acceptable ones—let’s say, those who lean in, like the boys, but are also feminine, of course—and ones who don’t belong.
A transmission from Talos IV indicates there was some sort of crash, but Pike sticks to his Federation First(!) policy since they don’t have any indication of survivors: “Continue to the Vaga Colony and take care of our own sick and injured first.” The crew looks uncertain; it seems like this is just their dear leader’s policy, not the Federation’s. Thankfully, they later do hear a distress call indicating survivors and beam down to Talos IV. Look at Spock’s happy face!
They see a group of ragged old men. The men part and Vina, a sexy blonde lady, walks out—Pike is smitten; we can tell from the music! Then something interesting happens: big-brained beings are watching what’s going on a television screen. Their goal is to get a proper “specimen” to mate with Vina and reproduce. Of course, the show explicitly draws attention to itself as fantasy by having the aliens watch Pike just as we are watching the show—for entertainment and educational value.
The aliens experiment with Pike by getting into his memories and materializing a series of his own fantasies (recall what he told the doctor). He fantasizes about Vina as a damsel in distress he must protect against a brown barbarian. Another scene shows them as a conventional couple having a picnic. These are fairy-tale alternatives to his Starfleet life.
The most interesting fantasy, however, is the one in which he is as Orion trader. It’s decadent like Roman times with dancing women—the introduction of the infamous Orion slave girl. The Talosian watching TV remarks, “A curious species. They have fantasies they hide even from themselves.” One of the officers says, “Funny how they are on this planet. They actually like being taken advantage of. Suppose you had all of space to choose from, and this was only one small sample.” The fantasy here, of course, is a conflation of sex and colonialism: the conquest of the feminized figure and the conquest of “all of space.” Think of it as Freud meets Said in space. The deepest fantasy in this very first episode of Star Trek must be one that is disavowed; this is how the pilot sets up the ideologies of the whole universe.
Indeed, there is a violence inherent to Pike, our upstanding captain: “I’ll break out of this zoo somehow and get to you. Is your blood red like ours? I’m going to find out. [. . .]. All I want to do is get my hands on you. Can you read these thoughts? Images of hate, killing?” His stated reason for this language is that hatred masks his telepathy, but this hatred comes from a real place. This episode is already all about disavowal—we know that he really feels it but he has to mask it.
The Talosians just want them to have babies and develop some kind of civilization they can watch on their TVs: “we have time to evolve you into a society trained to serve as artisans, technicians.” Number One takes things into her own hands, overloading her phaser and threating to kill them all rather than submit to their benevolent fantasy: “It’s wrong to create a whole race of humans to live as slaves.” She makes the decisive gambit: sacrifice! Perhaps not something the manly Pike would have considered?
Pike, ever the liberal, makes an attempt at some kind of business relationship: “But wouldn’t some form of trade, mutual co-operation…?” The Talosians reject this offer and they are free to leave. The story then concludes with some good old-fashioned heteronormative futurity, privileging youth and beauty. You see, Vina can’t come to the Enterprise because this is what she really looks like, and if she leaves the planet she will lose her beauty.
Thankfully, the Talosians have a solution: they just copy Pike and allow Vina to remain on the planet with her fantasy partner. After all, she says, “They read my thoughts, my feelings, my dreams of what would be a perfect man. That’s why they picked you. I can’t help but love you.” Contrast Vina to Number One; the Talosians remark, “The female you call Number One has the superior mind and would produce highly intelligent children. Although she seems to lack emotion, this is largely a pretence. She often has fantasies involving you.” Yet Number One is successful at repressing her desire and that’s why she’s not like other women, as Pike noted earlier. This conclusion sets up our captain as a “perfect man” and differentiates between women, the bad emotional and delusional vs. the good stoic and pragmatic.
What is interesting in this mostly silly episode is how it sets up ideological smokescreens in the universe of Star Trek, particularly in that moment when Pike proposes some kind of trade deal. People were mad at Hillary for saying that she dreamed of a Western Hemisphere without borders, but what else is the Federation? One of the purposes of the Federations’ prime directive is to disavow their imperialism, but it is broken all the time; they require this prohibition in order to break it (see Žižek’s reading in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology on Catholicism in The Sound of Music—and let’s add Žižek to Freud and Said’s space party!).
One of the reasons I love DS9 the most is that it engages in at least some critique of Federation ideology. Consider that Kira Nerys in the first episode of DS9 tells Sisko, “I have been fighting for Bajoran independence since I was old enough to pick up a phaser. We finally drive the Cardassians out and what do our new leaders do? They call up the Federation and invite them right in.” When Sisko replies that the Federation is only here to help, Kira retorts, “Help us. Yes, I know. The Cardassians said the same thing sixty years ago.” Colonizers gonna colonize; some just come with a friendlier face. In a later Maquis episode, David Eddington tells Sisko, “You know, in some ways, you’re even worse than the Borg. At least they tell you about their plans for assimilation. You’re more insidious, you assimilate people—and they don't even know it.” And let’s never forget this famous scene with Quark and Garak comparing the Federation to root beer.
I hope this look at the very first Star Trek has whetted your appetites for the newest instantiation, Star Trek: Discovery! Will it be explosions Star Trek? Realpolitk Star Trek? Space-drama Star Trek? Who knows? I will watch it anyway, wearing my finest Star Trek dress with friends and a cold mug of Romulan Ale.